In my girlfriend's parents' Orthodox community, it's fairly common for people to refuse to eat at other families' houses. Sometimes it's for kashrut [keeping kosher, observing the dietary laws] concerns (disagreements over acceptable heckshers) [hecksher=notation indicating supervision for Kashrut by a known group or organization], but the majority of the time it's for seemingly unrelated issues (e.g., the wife not covering her hair or wearing pants) that somehow also reflects on that family's kashrut observance for these people. I find that kind of divisiveness disturbing -- wasn't it "because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed"? [Administrators note: this refers to a story about sinat chinam - baseless hatred and shaming another.]
Which is the more important Jewish value -- unity among Jews [klal yisra'el] or strictly maintaining your religious standards?
Can they be reconciled?
Your question is unfortunately all too familiar. It seems like every week there is another news story of one Jew or group of Jews discrediting another. In Jewish communities across the world individuals are made to feel self-conscious or inadequate in their personal practices and observances. This seems to fly in the face of many values and principles in halachah which stress the need for ahavat Yisrael (love of our fellow Jew) and kavod ha-briyot (ensuring proper human dignity). The Mishnah(Avot 1:6) implores us to be dan le-kaf zechut – to judge everyone favorably.
Some of the most intense cases of this occur in the realm of kashrut. Since it is impossible to know everything that comes into someone else’s kitchen and how they prepare it, many people resort to other ways of determining whether they can rely on the kashrut of someone else. Often this involves passing superficial judgment on an individual or a family. The logic often goes:” if this woman wears pants and I wear only skirts, she must not be as observant as me. Therefore I cannot trust her kashrut.” It seems like this logic stems from the fact that Halacha disqualifies people who publicly desecrate the Shabbat from serving as witnesses because they no longer have ne’emanut (trustworthiness) in matters of Jewish law. However, the disqualification of those who publicly desecrate Shabbat is not necessarily because of their lack of observance but because of the deep theological and sociological ramifications of publicly desecrating Shabbat. Theologically, we know that Shabbat serves as a sign and reminder of God as Creator of the world and as the One who took the Jewish people out of Egypt. Sociologically, in a traditional community one who publicly desecrates the Shabbat shows that he/she is not concerned with adhering to communal norms. Many contemporary authorities hold that if someone displays a connection to the Jewish people and a belief in God despite lack of observance they are not disqualified in the same way since we can no longer make the same theological or sociological conclusions.
Certainly when it comes to how someone dresses, for which there is a wide range of legitimate halachic opinions, it is very difficult to draw any conclusions of that person’s religious practice in other areas. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that if someone is an active member of an Orthodox synagogue that they know the norms of kashrut and would not intentionally cause someone else to deviate from their norms.
As demonstrated above, a strong case can be made to be more trusting of members of the community when it comes to kashrut. However, the reality is that people will continue to pass judgment and be critical. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that there are many chumrot (stringencies) to which some people adhere in kashrut and all areas of halacha which others don’t. In order to strike a balance between scrupulous personal observance and the values of community, Jewish unity and kavod ha-briyot, I believe that more open communication is necessary. Many synagogues have published communal norms and standards of kashrut, which the rabbi develops based on his understanding of halacha and the level of observance in his community. In order to invite people over for meals, members of the synagogue must agree to follow these norms. It is also important for people to be able to ask questions rather than guess for themselves if a certain family’s or individual’s practice is “up to par.” We are often too concerned about offending people that we refrain from asking difficult questions. In our desire not to offend we wind up being more offensive. The importance of open and clear communication is one of the key messages of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza stories which you referenced – the entire story unfolded because a messenger accidentally invited Bar Kamtza instead of Kamtza to his master’s party.
This is not only an issue in Orthodox communities I also encounter it in Conservative circles. There too is a wide spread of personal practice. Where in some Orthodox circles the fact that a woman is wearing trousers might be considered proof enough for that family’s lack of religious commitment in Conservative circles we have a wide range of what people are comfortable with in regards to kashrut: There are those who eat cheese that is made with vegetarian rennet but without a heksher and those that insist on a heksher for all cheese products, there are some who would drink wine without a heksher and those that don’t etc. Some people turn on and off lights on Shabbat which is contrary to my practice but it doesn’t make the food they prepare unkosher.
People in my community know approximately my level of observance and if they invite me for dinner I will act under the assumption that the food they offer me is prepared to the standards I accept, the halakhic principle for this is ‘dan l’kaf zekhut’ (to give the benefit of a doubt) which is based on a Mishna in the first perek of Avot. I do not look in their pots and kitchen cabinets. At one point I was invited to someone’s home for a shabbat meal which was sitting on a warming plate. At the end of the meal she offered tea & coffee, I accepted and then realized that she turned on a water kettle. At that point I politely explained that I wouldn’t have any tea. When she asked, I explained that even boiling water was prohibited on shabbat, she apologized, it turned out for some reason she was under the impression that she could “re-heat” water once it had boiled already (she clearly confused it with the re-heating of solid foods) and that was the end of it. Next time I visited her, a thermos with hot water was waiting for me.
Like with many things in life: with communication and an open-minded attitude towards each other our unity as a people and our commitment to an observant life can be preserved.
Sigmund Freud once wrote about the narcissism of small differences. People who align closely on many issues often exaggerate the importance of smaller ones on which they divide. This phenomenon appears often in observant communities of every religion, and our Jewish community is no exception. It is divisive, but it is simply a meter of personal preferences and rigors people hold. The only way to reconcile personal religious standards and klal yisrael is to seek out as much commonality as possible. There will be differences, but we should aim not to let them
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